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  • Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation by Thomas Turino
  • Hicham Chami
Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. By Thomas Turino. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. xviii + 258, photographs, glossary, references and recommended reading, annotated discography, index, accompanying CD.)

Drawing from his own interaction with his then-college-student son, Thomas Turino, a professor of Musicology and Anthropology at the University of Illinois, came to believe that the format in which the discipline of ethno-musicology is taught nowadays, namely large lecture classes, may not be the most effective way to foster “critical synthetic thinking” (p. xv). He therefore embarked on this work, hoping to provide general readers, scholars, and students alike with a series of analytic concepts and theories.

While some of these tools are drawn from other scholars’ work in ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology, and semiotics, many are original to the author and introduced here for the first time. Turino illustrates the use—and usefulness—of these concepts in various historical and real-life settings. Using his own fieldwork among the Aymara community in Peru and the Shona villages in Zimbabwe, he elucidates the different artistic functions, values, objectives, and people involved in specific instances of the music-making process. For historical perspective, he offers examples from Nazi Germany and the American Civil Rights movement to demonstrate music’s power to influence people’s view of reality, sometimes modifying it in order to serve a political agenda.

After a brief introduction discussing the ins and outs of semiotics according to Charles Sanders Peirce, Turino introduces a new taxonomic approach to music by distinguishing four distinct fields of music making: participatory, presentational, high fidelity, and studio audio art. What is remarkable (and serves the purpose of the book) is that the divide does not take place along the traditional lines of geographical areas (West African, Eastern European, Latin), genre or style classification (classical, jazz, pop, [End Page 101] rock, blues, folk, country), or era (e.g., music of the 1960s or 1970s). Instead, music is divided into “fields,” each of which is “differentiated by its own frame of interpretation, values, responsibilities, practices, sound features, and distinct conceptions of what music is” (p. 21).

The first two fields, participatory and presentational music making, are both performance-based. In participatory music, the social interaction among participants is of primary importance. The focus is mainly on the activity of doing the music—the act itself—rather than the resulting audio output; the latter matters only to the extent to which it may influence how performers/participants feel and experience the activity they are engaged in. The second field in Turino’s taxonomy is presentational music making, in which a clear line separates artists and audience members, with the “greatness” of a performance measured solely through the quality of the music produced.

The third and fourth fields, high fidelity and studio audio art, have more to do with recorded music than performance per se. High-fidelity recordings are intended to capture the essence of a performance and “serve” it to audience members as if they had witnessed the actual performance. That level of reproducing authenticity is not required in Turino’s fourth field. Studio audio art refers to recordings in which the art created is the primary focus, but there is a strong emphasis on the creative process rather than a strict representation of a live performance.

In considering music through this particular prism, and by offering concrete examples of how these concepts apply in real-life situations, Turino’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate that some communities are more responsive than others in appreciating certain music-making processes. He also invites readers to evaluate music making in a particular field using only the specific criteria pertaining to that field.

Emphasizing music’s role in creating social identities throughout the world, Turino clarifies certain terms that are so close in meaning that they might incorrectly be used interchangeably. For instance, he uses the pivotal concept of habits to define self, identity, and culture—in their similarities, their differences, but more importantly, in their interconnections. Relying on Peirce’s description of a habit as “a tendency toward the...


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pp. 101-103
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